Two Big Books of Summer

Recently I read two of the biggest books of the summer: Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky and Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls. I LOVED one of them and liked the other. Let’s get to it.

img_4237I pre-ordered Big Sky a few months ago, something I rarely ever do – hello, library five days a week – but Atkinson is one of two authors I automatically make an exception for (the other is Jess Walter.) This is the fifth installment in her Jackson Brodie series, and I’ve loved every one of them so far. I didn’t know if she’d ever return to this beloved character. It’s been nine years since the previous one, Started Early, Took My Dog. I’m happy to report that this one satisfied my expectations and then some.

If you’ve never read one of these books, well, they’re hard to categorize. They’re not shelved in the mystery section of my library, even though they involve a private detective/ ex-policeman, Jackson Brodie. They’re multi-layered stories with lots of characters and threads that end up coming together eventually in unexpected ways. Atkinson has a talent for writing stories about very heavy and/or sad things but somehow letting the reader breathe a bit with dark humor, razor-sharp wit, and characters to root for.

It’s been so long since I’d read one that I’d kind of forgotten where we’d left off with Jackson. But Atkinson does a nice job giving us enough back story to catch us up.

Brodie Investigations was the latest incarnation of Jackson’s erstwhile private detective agency, although he tried not to use the term “private detective” – it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it.) Too Chandler-esque. It raised people’s expectations.

This one involves some very unsavory characters involved in sex trafficking – Jackson gets involved sort of obliquely because he saves a desperate man from throwing himself over a cliff. I hate to write too much about the plot because part of the joy of these books is piecing together how all these characters know one another and fit together. Suffice to say there is an underground of disgusting men taking advantage of young women and Jackson and an old friend, Reggie, who is now a policewoman, are investigating. What I loved about the book besides the puzzle was the characterization and the humor. Jackson is just a terrific character – he’s cynical and pessimistic but still got a good heart, loves his kids and his dog, and wants to help the vulnerable. In one of my favorite scenes he’s trying to counsel the chap he just saved from the cliff, and not doing a very good job:

“Sometimes you’re the windshield, Vince,” Jackson said, “sometimes you’re the bug.” That was what Mary Chapin Carpenter sang anyway, pace Dire Straights.

“I suppose,” Vince agreed, nodding slowly as he chewed on the last bit of toast. A good sign in Jackson’s book. People who were eating weren’t usually about to top themselves.

“And there’s no point in clinging on to things if they’re over,” Jackson continued. (Julia was right, perhaps counseling really wasn’t his forte.) “You know what they say” (or what Kenny Rogers would say), ” ‘you’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.’ ” This was better, Jackson thought, all he had to do was utilize the lyrics from country songs, they contained better advice than anything he could conjure up himself.

I loved it, and I am hopeful that there will be at least one more installment in this series.

Gilbert’s City of Girls is a big, exuberant historical fiction novel about a young woman named Vivian. Well, at the beginning she’s an old woman reflecting on her life at the prompting of the daughter of her great love, who has written Vivian to try and find out just what exactly she was to her late father. So the story is essentially Vivian’s long, winding, roundabout answer. Most of the action takes place in New York City in 1940-41. Vivian has flunked out of Vassar and been sent to live in the care of her colorful aunt Peg, who owns and lives above a struggling theater called The Lily Playhouse.

This is a very detailed portrayal of a time and place, a love letter to that specific New York City, and Gilbert does a great job of putting the reader right there in the setting. It felt real and made me jealous of Vivian, who got to experience that New York before the post-war modernization boom and subsequent grimy decay of the 60’s and 70’s. Also there is a lot of fashion in this novel – Vivian has a natural gift for sewing and crafting outfits from scraps of fabric, which makes her very popular with the showgirls at the theater. I liked Vivian, but the first 140 pages or so didn’t convince me of the necessity of the story. It was nice, kind of fun, but didn’t feel essential – until Aunt Peg’s erstwhile husband Billy shows up from Hollywood with a surefire hit of an idea to reinvigorate the theater and make everyone some money. Then things started to happen and I became more invested. As we get towards the end of the novel and the man who becomes Vivian’s great love comes into the story, I could hardly read fast enough. This part moved me greatly and I ended the novel in tears. I love how Gilbert’s books are all so different from one another, but one thing she consistently does well is make the reader feel the complexities of romantic relationships. Not everyone gets a fairy-tale ending, but that doesn’t mean that the love wasn’t real or valid. I also appreciated how Vivian came to own her sexuality over the course of the book. She became a woman who didn’t apologize for having a sex drive and that was refreshing, especially considering the time period.

…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.

After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

This was good. A bit uneven for me, but it gained steam as it went along and I’m glad I read it.

Have you read these? What books published this year have you loved?

 

 

 

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24 thoughts on “Two Big Books of Summer

  1. I would have read Big Sky but our Library Authority are changing the system they are using at the beginning of next week and so for the past two months have not been buying any new stock or taking any reservations. Normally they would have bought something like a new Atkinson as soon as it was available. I’m just hoping that they will catch up on it once the new system is in place. They say it will all be up and running by next Thursday. I’ll believe that when I see it.

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  2. No, I haven’t read either of these, but I do want to; I’ve fallen a bit behind with both authors but I really admire and enjoy them, so it’s just a matter of taking time for a bit of catch-up. For books in 2019 I’ve loved, mostly there have been aspects of them that I loved but I didn’t necessarily love them overall. With two exceptions: Ian Williams’ Reproduction (which is kinda experimental, unusual for me, but I love the themes he explores) and Kim McLarin’s collection of essays Womanish (so thoughtful and complicated, what I had hoped to find in Roxane Gay’s essays).

    My thought on the Gilbert novel is that she must have been up to something in the earlier part of the novel, that wasn’t super obvious at the time, to have provoked such a deep emotional response from you. I can think of an Anne Tyler that struck me like that, and I had been so ho-hum for most of it (shan’t name it, to avoid spoilers), then, bam, so many tears. I love and hate that! *laughs*

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    1. You may be right about the Gilbert… I feel like I “should” have been more into the first part of the book, but I just wasn’t. So maybe it was all operating on some kind of unconscious level. 🙂 I still liked it and will continue to read her in the future. Now I want to know the name of the Tyler book! It’s been a while since I’ve read her.

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      1. So I did a search on your blog to see if you’ve mentioned that Anne Tyler novel but you haven’t, so I can’t tell you, or you’ll be waiting for tragedy to strike the entire time you’re reading! *laughs*

        But, along the way, I saw that you loved the Anastasic Krupnik books – oh, how I loved those. And I reread them a few years back too and agree that they are still very funny!

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  3. I haven’t read them, but I would like to try Gilbert’s book. She put a lot of research into it and it seems that that shows while you were reading. Do you think it probably contributed to the unevenness?

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    1. I could tell she did put a lot of research into it, and that didn’t bother me… there was just something off for me in the first part of the story… I can’t even out my finger on it really. I just didn’t feel a connection to the main character until she really started to come into her own, I guess, which was around the time I started caring more.

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  4. I haven’t read either of them. I wonder what Gilbert’s book would be like if that first 140 pages got cut out or revised down to say, 40 pages? Do you think it would become a better book? And if so, then that leaves a person wondering about the editorial process. Interesting to think about.

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    1. I think there could have been some cut from the first part, Stefanie. Not a ton, but some. I realized that I didn’t really care about the main character very much until she started to become her own woman, which was about the time the action picked up.

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  5. I thought Kate Atkinson was constantly churning out books. Are they not all part of this series that you’re reading?

    Elizabeth Gilbert will likely always be remembered for Eat, Pray, Love, a book that seemed like fluff aimed at women; however, now that she’s publishing more rapidly, I keep hearing about her new work and her literary aims. No one (that I’ve heard) refers to her books as “women’s fiction” anymore.

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    1. She IS constantly writing books, but no, they’re not all series. She hadn’t written a Jackson Brodie book in like 9 years!

      No, she’s really very multifaceted (Gilbert.) She wrote a fascinating biography before Eat Pray Love called The Last American Man – I read it last year and loved it. Her last two novels have confirmed her as a pretty “respected” writer, I think, for what it’s worth. (Who decides these things?) And also, for the record, I’m a diehard fan of Eat, Pray, Love!

      Like

      1. I only saw the movie version of Eat, Pray, Love — I did enjoy the way she takes a risk and tries several new things to learn more about herself, but I found the film itself unbalanced because the most time is spent in Italy. Granted, I love pasta, but it felt like the “pray” section was hustled by comparison. I’m so glad you liked it 🙂 I’ve been thinking about reading more “calm down” books, as I call them. Something that makes me feel a lot but is pretty fluffy. Sarah Addison Allen’s book The Sugar Queen reminded me that seeing two people come together is a perfectly good reason to read a book.

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  6. Haven’t read either of these! I have Big Sky on my shelf at the moment, but Gilbert’s book also interested me. It’s really cool how different her books are, that’s a true sign of writing talent in my mind. Glad you enjoyed both!!!

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  7. Wow, both sound really good. I already have a copy of City of Girls. I have only read Eat Pray Love and I am curious to see how Elizabeth tackles this one. Glad to hear that it ended up being a good read for you. Fab reviews.

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  8. I loved City of Girls. For whatever reason, I was invested from the beginning- maybe it was the opening sentence about being an idiot!

    I’ve only read one of the Brodie mysteries (Case Histories) and just never found the time to keep going. You’re making me think I need to up them to my escape-not-reading-to-review list. Did you like all of them? Do you need to read them all? Or could I just read Big Sky?

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  9. Well, it *would* be hard to top Signature of All Things. I’ll still be giving City of Girls a read!
    Big Sky sounds terrific. I’ve only ever read one Brodie book and that was a long time ago. I love the quote you pulled with the song lyrics!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Wonderful reviews! I have these both on my radar. I loved The Signature of All things so much, and her book Big Magic. As for Atkinson, this year I’ve read Transcription and A God in Ruins (maybe one of the best books I’ve ever read, period). Of the Jackson Brodie novels, I’ve only read Case Histories, but I keep meaning to get to the series. Someday soon!

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